Police Torture and Late 20th Century Chicago

I was born in central Massachusetts, and finished high school there, but it’s fair to say I grew up in Chicago. I went to college in the suburbs, and lived in West Town during the early-middle stages of that area’s gentrification. I worked jobs of little consequence, met my wife, and dabbled a bit in political activism before making a real Life Decision to go to graduate school. The main organization I worked for was the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. CEDP called out the corrupt and racist enforcement of capital punishment in Illinois, chiefly through amplifying the stories of the Death Row 10: a group of black Chicago men (which grew in number to at least 13) sentenced to death on the basis of confessions extracted by torture. These men launched the anti-capital punishment movement by sharing their stories behind bars–stories with the common elements of beatings, electric shocks, suffocation, and mock executions–and then trying to find allies outside of the system to spread the word and try to push the system toward  justice.

Slowly, at first, and then quickly, the stories of the Death Row Ten created a legitimacy crisis for capital punishment in the state. Governor George Ryan, a Republican, took action. Perhaps he felt he had little to lose, as he would shortly head to federal prison for corruption. Whatever his motives, Ryan pardoned four of the Death Row Ten and commuted every death sentence in Illinois to life imprisonment before leaving office in 2003.

The man most responsible for the tortured confessions and the years of lives lost to incarceration, Chicago Police Department Commander Jon Burge, died on Wednesday.

Chicago has never had a full reckoning with what Burge did under color of law and in the name of the people of Chicago. Although the city has paid reparations of $5.5 million to 57 of Burge’s victims, and Burge was convicted of obstructing justice in Death Row Ten member Madison Hobley’s civil suit, he was never criminally convicted. As Flint Taylor, an attorney who represented several of Burge’s victims through the People’s Law Office, wrote in The Nation in 2013, the city, Cook County prosecutors, and the Chicago Police Department, faced with an unprecedented insurgency against the code of silence, were saved by a special prosecutor’s investigation which yielded no indictments against current or former police. Perhaps the most stunning result of the civil suits against Burge and the city was the 2011 finding by a federal judge that Richard M. Daley, who had served as Cook County’s chief prosecutor during the prime years of Burge’s terror and send many of his victims to prison before serving as Mayor for 22 years, was responsible for covering up Burge’s crimes (in one 1982 case, States Attorney Daley was advised in writing by the county jail’s chief physician that arrested murder suspect Andrew Taylor showed signs of torture, including burns from being pushed into a radiator. Daley took no action, and Wilson was convicted and condemned before his conviction was overturned in 1987). The city paid a $6 million settlement to prevent Daley from having to give a sworn deposition in the suit.

The Fraternal Order of Police has defended Burge throughout, leaning on whatever uncertainty they can imply from the lack of a criminal conviction:


I still vividly remember picketing at Cook County Jail at 26th and California before a procedural hearing for Madison Hobley, who was ultimately pardoned by George Ryan, and whose civil suit led to Burge’s conviction for perjury and obstruction. I remember specifically being heckled by several plainclothes police (yes, it is 100% that obvious in Chicago) walking in to court: “Oh yeah, everybody’s innocent.” It wasn’t said with any particular malice or anger, just the confidence that if the CPD offered up a suspect as guilty, it was good enough and it would stand.

It’s hard to judge that confidence misplaced. Burge collected a $30,000 pension for years after being fired (for one case of abusing a suspect, not a systemic campaign of torture). Richard M. Daley’s sins of omission were bailed out by the taxpayers, and he was never made to answer in court. In the meantime, Daley rolled to reelection after reelection by emphasizing the changes he was bringing to the city: the revitalization of formerly decrepit areas, new ballparks and arenas, a reversal of population decline. One of the harsh realities I’ve had to reflect on about living in Chicago during that time is that the presence of more people like me–college educated, (semi-)professional, white–in West Town was, whether I liked it or not, testimony for Daleyism. The Mayor’s mushmouthed boosterism was, of course, paired with the premise that the police defended the Mayor’s city, defended me, from dangerous others. I sat at many bars; others sat behind them.

I arrived in Chicago after Jon Burge had been fired in 1993. But not too long after. Yet, I moved into a different city than the one inhabited by the Death Row Ten, or even than Mario Flores, who was sentenced to death for a 1984 gang killing less than a mile from my first apartment in the city, despite the state presenting no physical evidence and enticing testimony implicating Flores by offering witnesses leniency on unrelated crimes, and Flores’s public defender failing to call exculpatory witnesses (Ryan commuted Flores’s sentence to 40 years). It wasn’t just the passage of years, it was the practice of politics that welcomed me with open arms and treated others, out of my sight, with fists. Mayor Daley and Rahm Emanuel rode the tiger of policing politics successfully for six and two respective terms in office. Throughout, the city of Chicago continued to pay settlement upon settlement to victims of police rather than confront a systemic culture of abuse.

Even NPR initially headlined Burge’s obituary describing him as “Accused of Torture.”

While it might make for a more cumbersome headline, a later correction on Twitter got it a little closer to the truth:

Today, CPD officer Jason Van Dyke stands trial for murder in the shooting of black teenager Lauquan McDonald, after the department nearly succeeded in suppressing police camera footage of the shooting. By my impressions, most people casually refer to it as the McDonald trial. I see the wisdom and compassion in remembering the victim, but it strikes me, too, that after the state’s conclusion of its case today, McDonald may ultimately be the one on trial. There is one black juror.

John Conroy covered police abuse in the Chicago Reader for years, even and especially when others wouldn’t. Support your local independent alt-weekly if you still have one.

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